Istanbul, part 4: food and drink

travel blog & musings

Remember back when I said I’d do this trip write up in 3 or 4 posts? Well, I lied. I meant five. Next up, a collection of moments involving food.


First meal: I don’t eat meat. A friend who had been to Istanbul a few weeks before our trip wrote me one day and said “Kebabs everywhere. I’m worried for you!” But it turns out a no-meat diet in Istanbul works out just fine. I do eat seafood though, as evidenced by the first image above. Our first meal in Istanbul in a little cafe full of locals close to our hotel. Meals we had usually come with two types of starch, rice and potatoes or bread. Vegetables were plenty, especially at the more self-service style restaurants. I won’t lie, not eating kebabs did make me a little sad. But brother had plenty for us both. And the seafood was delicious.

Tea in Turkey: ubiquitous, almost a ritual, almost a habit you don’t realize you’ve fallen into until on your fourth cup in an hour. Once you realize that, you switch it up and start drinking the sweet apple tea instead of the regular Turkish tea. Always in these delightfully shaped glasses.

Turkish delight and other treats: It just so happened the cafe with all of these treats was right by the handiest tram stop for us. And so it just happened that we found ourselves here…a few times. What this case of sweets image doesn’t show is the long counter full of baklava varieties to the right, and the gorgeous pastry case a bit further in. Brother was more for the pastries & cakes, I was all about the baklava in its various forms. This cafe is where I tried to answer the ages-old question of “how much baklava is too much?”, a question which still remains unanswered. Here was also the scene of my multiple attempts to drink Turkish coffee—fair to say I am not good at that. Despite my best efforts, despite observing how the locals drank their coffee, and despite my love for really strong coffee.


The fish sandwich off of a boat by the bridge: This is not as shady as it sounds—these are the boats by the Galata Bridge:


Note the men at the grill. They are turning through a LOT of fish filets in a SHORT amount of time. My sandwich had a bit of fin still on it (must have been overlooked in the SUPERSPEED of the cooking & serving), but aside from that, the sandwich was fresh & good. Just bread, fish, lettuce, onions, and sauce if you choose to add it. Not fancy, but just what you need for a cheap & replenishing quick lunch.

Vegetable and fruit bins in a small market. Not much to say here, other than I found this mode of produce selling to be much more energy and water efficient than the markets I frequent at home. Which was refreshing.

Ah, the spice market, full of spices and dried fruit and Turkish delight and teas and so many goodies. Mention ‘saffron’ and the vendor’s eyes light up, they take you into their shop to show you the good stuff in a tin from under the counter. And of course, supply you with glasses of tea and little bits of Turkish delight while you negotiate. Outside of the market are more shops, the well known coffee vendor Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi Mahdumlari is across the street—all you need to do to find this place is follow your nose and the line of people getting their fresh ground coffee for the day. The line can be long but the staff is efficient and the locals know what they’re there to get, have exact change ready, and are in no mood to waste time. So it moves fast.

The not-so-alcohol-free typical beverage is raki, similar to ouzo. I do not have any pictures of moments involving raki, but know that I remember them all, they weren’t too out of place for me, (Really, I’ll throw down some waltz steps in any piazza or square, including Taksim Square, raki influenced or not. Though it may have helped.) and felt fine in the morning.

Our last night in Istanbul was spent at a little cafe with water pipe, where the friendly proprietor kept bringing us tea. Kept Bringing Us Tea. And a plate of fruit, and a little dish of candies, and a popular yogurt/milk drink, and more tea. We spent the evening munching, drinking tea, playing backgammon, and trying to blow smoke rings. Neither of us managed a true smoke ring, but there was a man at the table next to us who was doing so flawlessly. I wonder if he noticed us staring.

Cats. Many of the restaurants had outdoor seating enclosed in tents for the winter, but the cats still wandered in, sitting by tables and pleading with their big eyes for food. They weren’t jumping and no one seemed to mind, so I didn’t either. My momentary dining companion for one mid-day meal outside:


And then, there was this food moment:


Readers, I don’t know why I look so frightened. It was a clay pot. With meat inside. When the meat is cooked, the server taps the clay pot with a metal rod until it splits in half, then spoons the meal onto a platter. I’d like to say the pot splits with a huge explosion, which would account for my expression, but no. It’s more of a “pop” and then the top just falls off. Brother got lucky with snapping this picture at the right moment I suppose. He also enjoyed his exploding clay pot meat lunch.


(This is probably a good time to mention all images on this blog are mine, unless otherwise noted. Or unless I’m in them. In which case, I probably stole the image from my brother.)


Istanbul, part 3: cats and patterns and textures

musings, travel blog & musings

A long time ago, I had been led to believe (by my mother), that Rome would be a city full of cats. Cats cats everywhere, especially in the Coliseum. During a quick unplanned day stop in Rome (not enough time) during a return trip from Capri the day after Easter (it was crowded and not a lot was open) I was ready to greet these cats and protect all of my foodstuffs from them. But that was not to be—I ended up highly disappointed that a) the coliseum was closed, b) I could therefor not hang with the multitudes of cats and c) as I saw no cats at all anywhere, my mother had lied to me. But I soldiered on in the face of disappointment since Rome does have a few other sights to offer…but what to do in the space of a couple of hours? We did what any art history/design/painting students would do—first wandered through St. Peters to gaze at the wealth of artworks contained within (including the Bernini sculpture “The Ecstasy of St. Teresa”, much chuckled about in art history class as St. Teresa’s ecstasy does not appear to be of the chaste sort), then we pushed through the multitudes of people on the Spanish Steps, avoided the $8 slices of pizza close to Vatican City, and had a delightful hour of relaxation laying in the grass in Circus Maximus (important before a very crowded train ride back to Florence). But, no cats. Would my desire to see a centuries-old city overrun with cats ever be quenched?

Istanbul. The missing Roman cats were made up for in Istanbul.

Cats were everywhere, perching on benches, lounging on doorstoops with friends, sitting in bright light, wandering nonchalantly in crowds: a seemingly equal part of the city alongside humans. And here’s the part I was most surprised with: the cats I ran into were all well-fed, friendly, and healthy. None of them looked or acted like strays. I even made a friend on a park bench once day.

catsofistanbul(Shorthair cats dominated. The one longhair we saw was actually in the village of Anadolu Kavağı. Did I miss all of the longhaired Istanbul cats?)

Another part of this trip I was looking forward to were the patterns and textures of a different culture. Being a designer and currently non-practicing painter, visiting architectural and art spaces is the best way for me to understand the people & history of the area I’m visiting. Every place has their own distinct artforms formed or in many cases layered from political, religious, economic, and creative tradition (or strife) throughout its history. Here’s a selection:

textureofistanbulfrom top to bottom, left to right:

Outer wall & windows of the harem in Topkapi Palace

Engraving: I’m really sorry I forget where this is

Sarcophagus from the Ottoman Empire in the Museum of Archaeology

Inside the Blue Mosque

Tiles in the Tiled Kiosk, part of the Museum of Archaeology

Lanterns in the Grand Bazaar, also every other bazaar. I have a feeling these were a trendy tourist item at the time along. Anyone know if they’re still everywhere?

Mosaic from the Byzantine era in the Great Palace Mosaic Museum


I had grand dreams of coming back to my design job filled with inspiration, incorporating new patterns into everything I was doing. The thing about design though is that any part of a project needs to belong to or have a reason to exist within its purpose. I haven’t found the proper outlet for the patterns and textures of Istanbul yet in my professional life (ALMOST! A steam engine won out over multiple arches in the Hagia Sophia for a book cover today), but these images are all bouncing around in my subconscious (and my photo archives) for when that right project does arrive.

The cat pictures? Well, yes. They’ve been used. In the form of a Cats of Istanbul calendar for myself and few others. Because no one has ever made a calendar about cats before, right? Especially not one with full moons noted, so you will know when cats will be weirder than usual. (Someday I bet I’ll end up making a Cats of Rome calendar. I just have to visit again, properly.)


Istanbul, part 2: places & buildings

travel blog & musings

I mentioned something about the lines in part 1. To expand on that:

We flew Pegasus Airlines from Austria so arrived in Istanbul through the smaller & newer airport on the Asian side, Sabiha Gökçen. That was easy to navigate and with no lines whatsoever it took us all of two minutes to get our visas and head to baggage claim. I can’t say it’s that easy all the time, but definitely worth the much lesser price to get your Turkish visa at the airport of entry rather than at a consulate beforehand.

But I digress: lines. We landed during rush hour on a Friday evening. The drive (we sprung for the hotel to have a driver pick us up at the airport—highly recommended) to our hotel was long and full of our first taste of Istanbul traffic. Bumper to bumper the entire drive, until we crossed into Old Town. The most surprising thing to me about the drive was how large the cars were. I was expecting the tiny cars that you’d find in other really old European cities—but no, most cars were what Americans would consider regular-sized sedans. Mega SUVs were noticeably absent though.

Again, back to lines. On Saturday, lines into attractions were short. The wait to get into the Blue Mosque was a bit longer than expected, but only because everyone takes off their shoes before going in. This is not optional. And yet one more reason why easy on/easy off shoes are a necessity when traveling. You do get a plastic bag to carry your shoes in, which happily can be recycled when you leave through the other side of the mosque.

On Sunday and after, the more typical line length:


This was the line to take an elevator to the top of the Galata Tower in the new district, the best view in the city. Lines at Topkapi Palace into the various exhibits were (each) longer. Brother and I had plenty of time to laugh & imagine how 3o-odd years ago when our parents visited Istanbul, they probably could have picked up any of the jewels or weapons at at the palace and had a grand time trying them out, with no one around to tell them to stop or holding up any lines. Not the case now—after waiting half an hour to get into an exhibit, security hustled you along for an approximate 2-second walk-by glance at the artifacts. Mostly Common Sense Moral of the Story: if you want to go to museums & sights & spend quality time, visit Istanbul at times other than popular travel holidays.


The rest of the scenes & buildings of Istanbul above, in order:

Coming back into the city after a day cruise up the Bosphorus and back, the Blue Mosque and Galata bridge with fishermen still at work and fish sandwich vendors beneath glow at dusk.

Basilica Cistern—this underground area used to hold the water supply for the city, now decoratively holds water with koi and occasionally holds concerts.

View of Old Town from atop the Galata Tower. We were lucky enough to be up here when the afternoon call to prayer rang out around the city. Every mosque has their own, so you hear the call repeated and echoing from every direction. The first time you hear this if not used to it, it’s hauntingly beautiful. Here on top of the city, the sun broke out of the clouds above the mosque right when the call to prayer started, and I was speechless. Were I a spiritual person, this would have had to be taken as a sign of some sort.

A small town up the river. Apologies that I forget which one, but this very well could be the end stop of the river cruise before the Black Sea, Anadolu Kavağı. Not part of Istanbul like this post’s title would lead you to believe, but just a boat ride away. A boat ride where vendors are constantly walking the decks & selling hot tea. Delightful to have on a chilly boat ride in January.

The view from the terrace of our hotel, Hotel Sultan Hill. Which in late December/early January was very windy. But still a lovely view. We were also very close to the Sea of Marmara, hence all of the seagulls flying around the mosque.


I went running early one morning along the path by the Sea of Marmara—judging by the reaction of several men in white vans (who I’m guessing were either delivery men or hired drivers), a woman in form-fitting clothing running alone in the morning was not such a common occurrence. The (adorable) front desk guy at the hotel seemed a bit surprised when I headed out that morning as well. But not dissuaded, the morning jog gave me an opportunity to see typical morning activity I otherwise wouldn’t have: lone fishermen balancing on the rocks, a group of men bathing in the cold water partially (modestly) clothed, and of course the ubiquitous cats & seagulls.


better really late than never? the trip to Istanbul, part 1

travel blog & musings

After the trip in the previous set of ‘a week in pictures’ (posted last august…) my brother and I visited a new larger town, a very large town, so large I shall now stop calling it a town. This city is remarkable, very old, and filled with such friendly people. It is also large enough to deserve more than one post, so I’m dividing this part of the trip into 3 or 4 separate posts. To begin…

Ever since 9th grade Odyssey of the Mind, when our team’s problem for the year was to perform a timed skit in which we talk about the seven wonders of the world, I’ve wanted to visit this place. Why the tale of OM days of yore, you ask? Because, also as a part of the skit we needed to name and discuss our own seven wonders. The first thing we named was the Hagia Sophia. So this building has lived in my imagination for a loooong time, for so long I was worried that the actuality of being in the Hagia Sophia wouldn’t live up to my years of imagining it.


Happy to say that the Hagia Sophia does live up to the hype, and even the 15-20 years of mystique created by living in one’s mind.

The top image was taken on New Years Eve about 30 minutes before midnight. Brother and I wandered there after spending a couple hours sitting in a pleasant covered outdoor cafe partaking in tea, snacks, backgammon, waterpipe, and a whirling dervish performer. Notice the few people milling about the fountain—as the time drew nearer to midnight, more and more people arrived to what eventually amounted to a large and friendly and mostly sober crowd. The roasted corn, chestnut, and salep street vendors regularly in this area were doing quite the steady business. This is tourist central of Istanbul, with the heavily visited sights of the Blue Mosque just on the other side of the fountain and Topkapi Palace closeby, but there were a large number of Turks in the crowd as well. As it turns out, the city sets off fireworks on New Years from each of the seven (if I remember correctly) highest places of the city—this was one of the typical gathering points to watch the fireworks. Munching on roasted chestnuts while watching fireworks right outside of one of my most favorite buildings in the world is really a decent way to spend a New Years Eve.

The rest of the above images I won’t explain more than this: they are pieces of what I saw while looking around in wonder, and can’t compare to actually being there.

We were lucky to visit on this day, a Saturday. On Sunday we walked by on route to Topkapi Palace and noticed the line to get in was at least 4 times longer than what we had stood in a day previous. Whether Sunday is a typically large tourist day for this city or the difference was due to the large number of visitors coming into Istanbul for the New Year (apparently a major destination for Europeans) I do not know. But I was so happy to have had a relatively quiet day to wander around and soak in its long and storied past. Did I get all misty-eyed when walking in? Well…maybe…